Cats staying upbeat in midst of rough season

Cats' attitude, mindset a reversal from 2000 season...


LEXINGTON, Ky. --- The door has slammed shut on a bowl bid.

They've dropped five straight overall and their last 14 in the Southeastern Conference.

NCAA sanctions are still still looming overhead.

The climate is getting a little colder and more blustery with each passing day at the Nutter Center.

A visitor to one of Kentucky's practice sessions, however, would likely have trouble identifying the Wildcats as the team facing such doom-and-gloom.

"We're not thinking about any of that," said junior defensive end Dennis Johnson following yet another spirited and upbeat practice session for the Cats. "All we're thinking about is working hard, trying to get better, and putting a 'W' up on the board."

"Our confidence level is pretty high right now," added senior wide receiver and co-captain Dougie Allen. "The last two games, we've played like we knew we were capable of playing, and we feel like we should have beaten a couple of good teams. So everybody's just out here trying to have fun.

"It's a complete turnaround from last year when nobody was hardly talking to each other, and when they were it was guys arguing with one another and coaches arguing with one another. We didn't have anything positive going."

Last season's woes have been well-documented, most recently in a new book by former assistant coach Tony Franklin, who documented just how fragmented the team became during its 2-9 season of 2000.

So what has been the magic formula for keeping a team upbeat during such a rough time for UK football?

"We've still got four games left," Allen said. "That's the main thing. We see a chance to win four games and maybe prove ourselves a little bit. We can still finish on a high note."

Kentucky has an open date this week before resuming its schedule against a struggling Mississippi State (1-5) squad on Nov. 3 in Starkville. The last three games include road games at 1-5 Vanderbilt and Indiana, and a home game against No. 9 Tennessee (4-1).

First-year coach Guy Morriss, whose future with the program may rest on how the team represents itself down the homestretch of the 2001 season, said it's leadership from players like Allen and a new mindset that has made the difference.

"I think the kids believe in what we're doing, and they respect the staff," he said. "We've been honest with them. I tell them every week we can beat this team if we do this, this and this. And they're seeing that's true. They believe in their coaches and the guy playing next to them.

"We really preached to them about staying together as a family and the team concept. I think that they realize that's the only chance that they have to win some games."

Allen downplayed his role with the team's overall mindset.

"I think everybody's generally been in a pretty good spirit. I really haven't had to do that much," he said. "We've got guys who aren't designated leaders who are really stepping up and showing leadership. It's really a team effort to keep everyone together.

"Plus, the coaches keep praising us for our effort, so that makes us feel good, and we're going to keep working hard for them."

Morriss cited some of the team's younger players for stepping into leadership roles. He said sophomore tackle Antonio Hall has become more vocal and leading by example, playing hurt. Nick Seitze, also a sophomore, has assumed a leadership role since being inserted at center for the injured Nolan DeVaughn.

Junior guard Kip Sixbery, who is academically ineligible, has stayed active and been a role model in the weightroom.

"We're really pleased with Kip," Morriss said. "He's done everything we've expected of him, including in the classroom. That's the big thing for him."

Even a player like transfer Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns, a defensive lineman who Morriss said would be playing this season if he were eligible, has helped with preparation by being so intense in practice.

"His enthusiasm and the way he plays with such a high motor has been a plus," Morriss said. "That, in itself, has become contagious. Guys like John Clay and Jacob Koch have fed off of that."

Most of the players wish that hard work was being capped by a game this weekend.

"An off-week is good because we've got some banged up guys who need to get back healthy, but I think everyone would tell you they'd like to be playing this Saturday," he said.

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